This tactical analysis looks into the defensive issues facing Marc Dos Santos’s Vancouver Whitecaps. Vancouver. In this analysis of their defensive troubles we will be looking into their defensive tactics. Especially, there will be a focus on goals conceded.
The Whitecaps finished last in the Western Conference last season. The 2020 season has started with the having the worse goal difference in the Western Conference as of the 23rd August with -7. Vancouver have conceded 14 goals this season which is the highest across the MLS.
The first thing of note from 2020 is the amount of changes Marco Dos Santos has made to his starting line up formation. Prior to the lockdown, Vancouver started with a 4-4-2 system, with one forward dropping in to create a link between the midfield and attack. Teibert and Hwang played centrally in a midfield four which played defensively and compact when out of possession. The following image shows this formation in action out of possession.
Vancouver started 2020 with two games both playing this 4-4-2 system, where they conceded three in their first game defeat 3-1 to Kansas City. This was followed then with a rare clean sheet in 1-0 win over LA Galaxy. For their following games in the MLS is Back, they used a 4-1-4-1, a 4-4-2 and a 5-3-2 then a 4-4-1-1 over the next four matches. Dos Santos sent players out in different positions and with different responsibilities for a number of these matches.
In the two matches following the MLS is Back, Dos Santos used a 4-2-2-2 and a 5-3-2 in both games versus Toronto. In these matches they conceded four goals and scored none.
The above chart plots the goals conceded, shots conceded and shots conceded on target. The graph highlights the start of the 2019 season through to the 19th August 2020.
Vancouver has managed a total of three clean sheets over this period, incorporating 41 matches. In this period, Vancouver has conceded two or less goals 19 times. On 22 occasions Dos Santos’ side have conceded three or more. In 53.66% of their matches since the start of the 2019 season, Vancouver have conceded three goals or more.
Lack of pressure
In 2019 Vancouver averaged 18.32 shots against per game, whereas only managed on average 9.85 shots per game. Opposition teams were often having around double the amount of attempts on goal. They also averaged 35.18 penalty area entries in comparison with Vancouver’s average of 18.41. The 2020 season has started off worse in respect to shots against, Vancouver average 7.43 shots per match. Opposition sides far exceed this with an average of 20.86. Penalty area entries have also risen, with opponents averaging 37.29. Vancouver’s average here is also down a 13.71.
Ultimately, we can see from the below example that Vancouver do have players in place to defend. The issue is often a lack of pressure on the opponent. Below we see the player on the ball is being put under pressure from the Vancouver midfield player.
With the defence outnumbering the attack significantly, this is an area Vancouver should look to control. As the Vancouver midfielder engages the man on the ball, the other Toronto attackers are not closed down, with Vancouver looking to drop back into the penalty area. With defenders in the middle keeping their position within the width of the goal, Toronto are able to create a 3v3 attack in the wide area. The right sided midfielder, highlighted, has left his man though is not pressing with any real intention of closing down the player on the ball. This allows one pass to leave the Vancouver right back outnumbered 2v1.
The cross in this instance is delayed. Ultimately the forward is able to control the ball before shooting to score.
Again, as can be seen, there are defenders back. The two central defenders and the left back are in the penalty area. During the attack, they show that the defensive have a positional structure, though this does not always adapt to the movement of the opposition.
To emphasize this point, the following image shows Vancouver with all 11 players behind the ball.
Even with all players back, San Jose look to create a 2v1 overload on the far side of the pitch, with the player making the pass under no pressure entering the final third.
As shown above, the ball reaches the San Jose attacker on the far side of the pitch. His shot is blocked and loops in the air towards goal.
The centre forward, Wondolowski, jumps unchallenged as the centre back has not tracked his movement. Wondolowski’s header is then met by his strike partner who volleys in from right in front of the goal line. Once again, within the six yard box, an attacker is able to score without being put under pressure. Vancouver’s defenders look to try and block the shot by retreating to the goal line, rather than looking to win the ball.
Further to this lack of pressure in and around the penalty box, this example of passive defending begins near the half way line. 34 year old Shea Salinas picks up a loose ball and begins to dribble forwards. He has a Vancouver midfielder with him from the start and the defenders are back and in position.
He continues to run, and the first attempted challenge is shown in the image below.
The attempted tackle is passive and the following ones, again, are not enough to stop Salinas running deep into the penalty box and scoring.
So far, in 2020, Vancouver has a ‘duels won’ percentage of 44.15%. This, again, is below the average of the 2019 season, which stood at 46.61%. Dos Santos’s side are showing less intensity to win back the ball, giving the opposition time and space to create attacks. Vancouver look to get players back and limit the space but it could be said that they are not reacting to the opposition and are just taking predetermined positions.
Notably, Vancouver has on average given up 7.57 fouls per game in 2020. Their opponents have averaged 13.29. It could be imagined that a side that have averaged 41.56% possession this season and conceded the most goals would be fighting to win back the ball. This is another sign of their passive defensive attitude which opposing sides have been able to exploit.
Marc Dos Santos organises his side in a zonal marking system when defending corners. The following image shows their defensive positioning while defending a corner. They use seven outfield players surrounding the goalkeeper. This includes two players near, but not next to, the posts. Three defenders set up across the six yard box line, spreading across the width of the goal. In this system, two Seattle forwards have taken positions inside the six yard box.
When using this zonal system, the defenders need to take responsibility for their zones and attack the ball. Ultimately, the defenders need to make sure they are aware of any opponents running into their zone as well as if/when the ball is arriving. The difficulty that arises from corners is that opponents will look to make runs which force the defender to lose sight of them or the ball depending on what they focus on.
In this instance, and indeed in others, Vancouver also allows the first man to be left in space. The ball here is headed on into the six yard box.
The zonal marking system here leaves the Seattle forward with space in the six yard box to score. Neither defenders nor goalkeeper take control of the area so close to the goal.
Again, this time against San Jose, Vancouver uses the same zonal system around the goal. In contrast to the previous example, they do have someone closer to the front attacker, though he still has space around him.
The defender closest to the front attacker moves out to get in front of the opponent but has gone too far and is bypassed by the cross. The San Jose player is able to volley the ball and score unchallenged.
If Dos Santos is to persist with this tactic, ultimately his players will need to start taking more ownership of their zones. There is a need for more aggression and determination to get to the ball. Currently, opponents have too much time in the box and the challenges are often too passive.
When losing the ball in the central third, Vancouver can be caught out quickly by opposing sides on transitions. While they organise well with time, opponents can find large gaps at time between defenders. Below we see Vancouver turning over the ball and their opponents look to transition quickly.
The following image shows how the left back has been caught too high and unable to recover. He was high and wide, even with one central defender having been pulled out of position. The central defender that is still in position is now caught in a 2v1 transition.
In a number of occasions, transitions are often started from Vancouver giving away the ball cheaply. The following example see’s the Vancouver defender in possession looking to clear. He is not under immediate pressure with the opposition forward starting to block the passing lane out towards the left back. The defender has the option of passing back to his goalkeeper, or clearing long, but does not consider these options.
He waits and delays and ends up closer to the corner. In this position the central defender still tries to pass out to the left back.
The pass is blocked and rebounds into the path of the striker. He is able to run in at goal and cross to a teammate. The Vancouver right back has rushed into the centre of the box. This leaves the wide man unmarked and in plenty of space within the penalty area.
Lack of Playmakers
It can be seen that Vancouver does lack the creative players to build attacks and control the game in possession. David Milinkovic is a hard working creative winger signed from Hull City. Ali Adnan, signed from Serie A side Udinese can provide attacking threat down the left. Centrally, Teibert and Owusu work hard out of possession but lack the passing skill of In-Boem. The South Korean has recently left for Russian side Rubin Kazan, hoping to help them find their way back into the Champions League.
On average this season, Vancouver has managed 37.43 passes into the final third, with 25 passes successful on average. This is far lower than what they concede to the opposing sides. With opponents averaging 65.86 passes into the final third and 50 successful passes.
Marc Dos Santos’s side have struggled to take control of games or put opposing sides under enough pressure. While giving up far more opportunities than being able to create, Vancouver needs to start looking into how they can be more resilient under pressure.
Designated Player Hwang In-Boem has recently left opening up a space for a new arrival. It will be interesting to see how Dos Santos uses this spot. Will he look into a replacement central midfielder to improve their attacking abilities, or look at reinforcing his defence?